Global mass fashion giant H&M’s collaborations with high fashion designers always appear in retail consciousness suddenly, and then seem to spend a very short time available from the source before filtering onto eBay and second-hand shops. In the weeks after Marni, Versace and Lanvin for H&M were released, I heard the collections talked about at least ten times more frequently than I saw anyone actually wearing any of the pieces. At BangBang, a designer and vintage resale boutique in central London, where I worked as a buyer and sales assistant, H&M designer collaborations sometimes are offered to us for cash or vouchers with their tags still on.
Usually, after being unsuccessful turning a profit on the pieces, or realising they weren’t as flattering on as they were in the ad campaigns, purchasers or collectors sell them onwards for less than originally paid. Some very desirable items, don’t make it onto our rails, so there definitely are people out there making money reselling the items, storing them for future resale, or hopefully wearing them and loving them.
I’ve been mostly observant and slightly skeptical of the phenomenon of these high-street high-end fashion mash-ups. Fast fashion and its ethical and environmental ramifications make me uneasy. I can live an absolutely clothed life without spending any money at H&M. However, my closet is not devoid of garments with their labels, although many of them were purchased second-hand.
In 2009, when Sonia Rykiel for H&M launched its lingeries sleep and knitwear collections, I was among thousands of revellers at a private and press party which I worked with Simon Costin to produce. That night, amidst the chanpagne, carnival rides and elaborate floats, the full collections were available for sale. I didn’t buy anything that night, but did cave in the next day and purchased a satin bustier body from the collection on Oxford Street when I came home from Paris. It cost £19.95 and was 2 sizes too big, but it was the very last one. I wore it a few times, but tired of it. I checked eBay, and there were none selling for more than £5.99. I had chucked away the tags and after washing its surface texture had changed. I paid to have it dry cleaned and traded it in to Bang Bang. I met the girl who bought it and she had no idea who Sonia Rykiel was, she just liked the piece, paying £12.oo for it. This pleased me. The garment was moving on, and its pedigree as an H&M designer collaboration had nothing to do with its second life.
Since then, I have been really nowhere near an H&M store on the day of a designer collaboration launch. I hadn’t been reading the newsletter. I didn’t know who was in the pipeline. I doubted it would inspire me to overspend. Then, everything changed. Walking in Dalston, amid the visual chaos, noise and mix of genres, cultures and attitudes, there came a large white rectangle. A billboard. Maison Martin Margiela’s trademark grid of numerals, but with another logo – H&M’s and the date 15-11-12. This changed everything.
Sometimes I wonder if my love for Margiela is inherent or acquired or if it behooves me to appreciate the work of the Maison as a fashion curator. I am fascinated by process, allusions, reworking and the unusual in dress. The dissemination and intellectualisaton of Margiela’s ouevre keeps me observant. I like black clothing. I own one Margiela dress, a black jersey long-sleeved body conscious dress with a twisted hem that looks like a laundry mishap. It’s terribly elegant, and I earned it as part of a fee for curating my first exhibition. I make sure to wear my hair up when I wear it so the four stitches that hold the label to the back of the neckline are visible. Having worked but not paid for the dress, whose sale price was £275.00, I had become a devotee.
This past Friday however, a mission that began as almost purely ‘blogatorial’ ended up resulting in my purchase of Margiela for H&M pieces at two different London locations. Realising I had bypassed the launch date, and any chance of camping out on Oxford Street to be among the first to touch the collections, I had a look at it online. Impressed by the website, particularly its soundtrack, I took a few screenshots of things to consider. I did wonder just who would be out there shopping for these rather unusual items. I had some suspicions, but thought a trip out to the Westfield Stratford City Mall H&M might give me a first hand insight into whether there was actual hype, and if it was worth it. I left the house with credit cards, and reflected on the fact that the concept for the collection was that the itms for sale in H&M were “re-issues” of Maison MArtin Margiela pieces from past collections. Included in the selection were the replicas of his collection of replicas of doll and vintage clothing.
When I arrived at H&M within Westfield, the smallish Margiela section seemed like a work in progress. Rails were neat but half full. Mostly there was menswear. One duvet coat, quite a few deconstructed leather jackets, so many pairs of trousers – white painted jeans. In the centre of the floor was an accessories table, laden with white boxes with a few scarves, belts and shoes peeking out. I could see all this in one glance because there were not retail-crazed fashionistas clambering over the wreckage. There were, three, maybe four of us slowing orbiting the rails, fingering pricetags and holding things out at arm’s length now and again. My guess is that we were all aged over thirty, and we all had something in mind we’d like to buy that wasn’t out on the shelves.
A small and polite sign on the accessories table informed us that more would be coming after 12 noon. It was now one o’clock. We were being patient. I was now one of them – a Margiela shark. After another twenty minutes we were all on our phones. I imagined they were Tweeting, getting orders from friends or checking ebay prices on sold out items. My friend was feeding me updates from local news outlets. It was all very calm. I considered various things, but the jumper made from socks never came out of the stockroom. I tried on the dress with the print of a dress but it was tragically long on me.
In the video link of the collection’s presentation by dancer Suyeon Youn, you can see the dress was her ideal garment for movement and it looks wonderful on her. I left with the blouse made from scarves, a piece whose original version I knew and admired. It was flattering on, and felt nice to the touch. A little bit hippie and a little bit goth.
It was from the Maison Martin Margiela collection Spring Summer 1992. Definitely of its moment, and I would have loved it then as I do now. Pleased with the fact that I was connecting this indulgent high-street purchase with a personal sartorial narrative, I received my blouse, in a ridiculously large white bag, wooden hanger and all.
As I walked out of the mall, feeling like a billboard myself, I felt that with such a large bag, one might as well have another thing in it.
I’d give my luck try on Oxford Street. I wondered if it would be more aggressive there. Would there be a frenzy of tourists buying the collection? Some of the news reports stated that people thought the clothes were weird, ugly or like what people on Brick Lane wear. Reports on how much people had spent on items at the Regent Street store were published. Some people had forked over thousands to be handed overflowing giant white bags. Were these bags filled with rags or riches?
By the time I left the Regent Street Store, with my jumper made from socks (Re-edition of Autumn/Winter 1992), I thought I had found the answer. We were buying ideas. Is this the ultimate Margiela-ism? Strong ideas as well as aesthetics are what makes Margiela a cult favourite amongst fashion fans who give substance at least equal footing with style. Lots of these types, myself included, have a respect for Margiela that compels us to desire a piece of these ideas. Some will archive the pieces, that appear pre-archived with their large fabric hangtags. Some will await their potential increase in monetary value. Some, like me, will wear them and then archive them.
In all cases, I wonder if Margiela himself is having a laugh, or if he is observing the phenomenon at all. With doubts about the degree of his involvement in the house since 2009, I wonder what hand he had in the H&M collaboration. Who chose the pieces to be produced? Was he pleased with the outcome? Surely it wouldn’t have happened without his own approval at some level?
I don’t have any insider information in this arena, and my sharking around the internet has not produced any further intelligence about Margiela’s involvement or non-involvement with the collaboration. So, as I wear my sock sweater and scarf blouse (gingerly and occasionally) I conclude that I have purchased the manifestation of some ideas by Margiela, and along with wearing them I wear the mysteries behind the collaboration. Martin Margiela, please be smiling, even if sardonically, as your ideas re-appear, exchange hands and continue to make us think.